Most ski schools are part good and part bad, and the only proper way to assess them is to find out what proportion of pupils get what they want. In practice, guides such as mine have to rely on a handful of reports each year. These are usually a mixed bag, and often the picture that emerges will vary from year to year.
Some but not all pupils of a given school will complain of over- large classes, of instructors who simply lead without teaching, and who either can't speak clear English or don't because they are teaching a predominantly French or German group. What you and I need to know is how likely these problems are to arise. As things stand, 'experts' like me cannot guide you with any precision.
There are exceptions. Curiously, they come at the top and bottom of the skiing market. Whatever the privations of a ski holiday in eastern Europe, beginners can count on tuition that is conscientious and encouraging as well as cheap. In Andorra, too, (not nearly so cheap, but a lot more cheerful) good tuition for British visitors is the rule, not the exception.
In eastern Europe, instructors are a highly motivated elite who know that prosperity depends on sustaining the British trade. In Andorra, the schools are largely filled with British instructors; young people who are in the business because they like it, not only because they were brought up in a mountain village where ski teaching and hotelkeeping are the standard callings.
Ski teaching in America is generally reliable. The American customer-orientation helps, as does the language. This is particularly true for non-beginner classes, where skiers have to be encouraged to take the right mental approach as well as bend the right limb at the right time.
And it's for intermediate or good skiers that two schools in the States stand out. Both are at resorts that have cult status among good skiers. Reports from pupils of the Pepi Steigler school at Jackson Hole in Wyoming are uniformly positive, and stand in sharp contrast to so many from the Alps. Classes are typically small, with only four to six in the group, and the instructors work hard at the 'inner game' of confidence building. Classes operate at 11 levels regardless of how few pupils there are - two or three in a class is not unusual. But the school at Taos in New Mexico has an even higher reputation. The resort and school are virtually synonymous - no fewer than 70 per cent of those visiting the resort for a week take ski school classes.
So the bizarre picture that emerges is that you'll be fine for ski tuition as long as you don't go to the Alps - where most of us want to go. This is a serious problem worthy of a serious solution. Skiers are investing precious vacation time as well as money in a learning process that is crucial to the success of their expensive winter holiday.
What about an improved mechanism for measuring quality? Here's a suggestion. Suppose that ski schools were able to join, at modest cost, an international association for the promotion of excellence in ski tuition. A short customer satisfaction questionnaire could be designed, inviting pupils to rate their course on half a dozen scales. The member schools could undertake to distribute the questionnaires to all pupils at the start of their courses (it would have to be the start, to catch those really unhappy customers who drop out). The cards could be posted to the association for analysis, and the overall results widely published in time for the next season.
Overkill? I don't think so. If you don't like your hotel room, you can easily move to one of a dozen others or (if you're on a package) enlist the help of your tour operator. If you don't like your ski school, you may have no choice but to persevere with it (in Switzerland, in particular, alternative schools are rare). Or the alternative may be no better. I'm going to send my suggestion to the directors of 20 randomly chosen Alpine ski schools to see what reaction I get.
Chris Gill is the editor of 'Where to Ski', published by Bantam pounds 14.99.
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